The Savannahlander: An epic and eccentric rail trek through Outback Queensland with Railway Adventures

The Cairns to Forsayth Railway 

The opening of a railway from Cairns to Mareeba in the late 1800s enabled the development of mineral deposits on the Atherton Tableland and further inland. Mining magnate John Moffat acquired leases on a number of mines and formed the Chillagoe Railway and Mining Company to exploit copper at Chillagoe and elsewhere. This company opened a railway from Mareeba to Chillagoe in 1901. A branch line, from Almaden, was built to serve copper mines at Einasleigh then extended to Charleston, now Forsayth, which it reached in 1910. The branch line was built on the cheap, with minimal earthworks, low-level bridges and light track. The Queensland government took over the railway after the Chillagoe Railway and Mining Company, never very profitable, was wound up after WW1. Queensland Railways then ran the line from Cairns right through to Forsayth.

After the collapse of mineral traffic, cattle became the main business of the railway. Passengers were catered for on a weekly mixed train. The railway remained open during the decimation of many of QR’s branch lines because the region’s unsealed roads became impassable during the wet season.  The completion of a sealed road in the 1990s seemed to sound the death knell for the railway but riding the mixed train had now become a great railway journey. The last mixed train ran in 1994 but tourists still wanted to ride a pioneer railway. They brought business to the isolated communities along the way. Irresistible political pressure was brought to bear and the line remained open.

The Forsayth line had been saved but what was to happen to it? Queensland Rail did not want to run their own trains on it so tenders were called for and a contract signed. A private company acquired three former QR 2000 class stainless steel rail motor carriages built in the 1960s and the ‘Savannahlander’ was born. The service began modestly, in 1995, from the tiny settlement of Mount Surprise to the end of the line at Forsayth. It soon became clear that there would be popular support for a service starting in Cairns and running the full length of the line. Cairns was also a more practical base in terms of workshop facilities.

The Savannahlander today

So, from 1998 the current four-day round trip of the Savannahlander was inaugurated. The train leaves Cairns at 0600 on Wednesday, climbs the spectacular McAlister Range, winds through rugged country and reaches Almaden where it stables for the night. The journey is resumed the next morning and Forsayth is reached on Thursday evening. Railway Adventures passengers join the train at Forsayth on Friday morning after spending two nights at remote Cobbold Gorge.

Our first sight of the Savannahlander is from the Cobbold Gorge bus as it pulls up in the Forsayth station yard. The two, sometimes three, stainless steel carriages are gleaming in the morning sun.

Passengers carry their bags a few metres from the bus to the rear of the train – the crew then load them and stack them in the rear compartment. Forsayth is minuscule but two or three of its younger residents are likely to be at the station busking – a fitting welcome to the train which will carry us across the sparsely settled Etheridge shire which, as we will learn on the train, is two thirds the size of Tasmania but with only 900 rate payers. The ‘Sav’ gets under way, at 8.30 AM, and the two drivers introduce themselves. They are not only qualified train drivers but also have a deep knowledge and understanding of the country the train runs through as well as its botany and wildlife.

Not long after leaving Forsayth the train enters the Delaney River gorge and starts climbing the Newcastle Range. The railway ‘on the cheap’ construction methods of the line now become evident as the tracks briefly run along the bed of the river itself. The walls of the gorge consist of huge granite blocks and boulders. Rock wallabies are sometimes seen leaping from rock to rock. Some time later, at the summit of the range, the train stops for morning tea at ‘Cafe Bloodwood’, a clearing in the bush in which the train crew set up a table with real brewed Atherton Tableland tea and coffee (no instant rubbish here). Koalas have been seen nearby recently.

The next stop is at Einasleigh, another remote Etheridge shire outpost, where passengers walk up the road to the pub for lunch. It is worth taking a short stroll from the pub to view the spectacular basalt formations in the Copperfield Gorge. Once back on the train we immediately cross the Copperfield River on a low level timber trestle bridge which becomes submerged each wet season. A ridge of basalt boulders now appears on the left. This is the remains of one of the volcanic lava flows 190 thousand years ago that formed the Undara Lava Tubes.

The first day’s train travel ends at Mount Surprise. Here, passengers board buses to the Lava Tubes, the first signs that something is different in the savannah country are the tiny patches of rainforest that grow in the basalt soil and exposed moisture of the partially collapsed basalt tubes. The intact tubes enclose cathedral sized spaces, and their sides are coloured by leached minerals.

Next morning, the train departs Mount Surprise at 8 AM – it will take more than 10 hours to reach Cairns. After crossing several rivers on low level bridges, from which fresh water crocodiles can sometimes be seen, and traversing increasingly rugged terrain, Almaden is reached. The Railway Hotel, just across the street from the station, puts on an excellent cold spread for lunch. Almaden was once a busy railway junction. The long disused tracks to Chillagoe can still be seen curving away to the left as the ‘Sav’ approaches the station.

After lunch, the train climbs over a series of rugged ranges. The line swings back and forth along the sides of deep gullies as it descends the Lappa Range and the view out of the window often includes the stretch of railway we are about to travel on. Halfway down is Lappa station, once the junction for a branch line to Mount Garnet. Apart from the long closed station, the only building still standing in Lappa is the old Espanol hotel which lost its license a long time ago. After crossing Emu Creek at Petford, the line climbs again, this time over the Featherbed Range. The route takes the train up the side of narrow Adder Creek gorge, another home of the rare Mareeba Rock Wallaby.

The train is a wonderful wildlife viewing platform and not just for Rock Wallabies. Three species of kangaroo are often seen along with a stunning array of birdlife. Emus and WedgeTailed Eagles, Brolgas and Bustards, Squatter Pigeons and Red Winged Parrots, as well as a host of others. Train driver Wil is a reptile expert. He will stop the train, jump out and catch Frill Neck Lizards, Yellow Spotted Monitors (a goanna on steroids) or one of several non-venomous snakes then show the passengers before releasing them.

The line drops down into Boonmoo, once the junction of a 2-foot gauge railway to Stanary Hills and Irvinebank serving the mines of the extended John Moffat empire. The track on this line was so rough and the topography so precipitous that passengers were apparently required to sign an indemnity before boarding their train. 

From Boonmoo, the route traverses tableland country that once supported tobacco farms. Now orchards and tee-tree plantations are the mainstay crops. Local volunteers put on afternoon tea for the train passengers at Dimbulah railway station. At Mutchilba, the staff and ticket safe working system that the train crew have used to ensure ours is the only train on the line, is left behind in favour of a modern, radio controlled protocol.


After passing through the Atherton Tablelands town of Mareeba, the ‘Savannahlander’ follows the Barron River into the world’s oldest rainforest. Termite mounds and sunny, open forests are abruptly replaced by the twilight of the rainforest floor. From Kuranda, the drivers ease the train through the tortuous descent of the McAlister range, with stunning views of Barron Falls and out over the Coral Sea, into Cairns. 

After the remote savannah, the city is another world.

We invite you to be a part of one of the great rail journeys in Australia with two exciting tours to choose from OUTBACK QUEENSLAND and QUEENSLAND SAVANNAH.

Scott McGregor’s Railway Adventures tour is more than just a holiday, it is a unique way to experience the world. By train you are completely immersed in culture and adventure, exploring the most scenic corners of the world in the comfort of a luxury train. Whether you are an experienced traveller or just beginning to explore this wonderful world, Railway Adventures has something for everyone. Transform your holiday into the most unforgettable adventure of a lifetime with Railway Adventures.

Call 1300 800 977 or email us at [email protected] to request a Catalogue for all our tours in 2024 or visit our website.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Posts

Scroll to Top